"For as long as we can remember, we feel like we’ve been taught that the default, 'normal' image of a romantic relationship looks a very specific kind of way – usually heterosexual, with each person of the same race, age, body type and size etc. But the truth is, real-life relationships are far more colourful and diverse than this, and they deserve far more representation."
Photographer duo Rona Bar and Ofek Avshalom, both 27 years old, are discussing the ideas behind their latest shared photo project, Us, a gorgeous series of portraits documenting lovers together at home. Sensitively shot in warm, natural light, the images are an honest and intimate window into an array of unique love stories, featuring couples in Israel, the UK and various other places across Europe. "From the very beginning, we aimed to photograph real-life relationships, and we really wanted to represent couples you don’t often see in mainstream media," the duo adds.
Now based in London, Bar and Avshalom were both born and raised in Israel, with Bar growing up near Tel Aviv and Avshalom hailing from the north of the country. Bar remembers wanting to express herself artistically as far back as she can recall, and she studied music and cinema before discovering that the camera was a way of making the dreamy visuals of her imagination come alive. Avshalom, meanwhile, pursued sports in his teenage years until a car accident when he was 18 left him needing to change course. He found his way to music and photography, which felt like soul-stirring outlets at that time in his life.
The idea for Us began blossoming back in 2020 during the first COVID-19 lockdown, inspired by Bar and Avshalom’s own relationship – they are partners not only in work but in life, too. "We actually met through a photography project we were both working on at the time, and we realised we share the same artistic vision," they remember fondly. "That led us to start working together on a regular basis, and it was only after a year that it became romantic." Stuck in place during lockdown, living together and both feeling uninspired by their work at the time, they came up with the idea to meet and photograph other couples, thinking it could be interesting to have lovers both in front of and behind the lens. How would it change the gaze, they wondered? Would it enrich the resulting photos' sense of intimacy and connection?
Over the next two years, Bar and Avshalom set out to take as many couples’ portraits as they could. The first couples they photographed were people they knew but, slowly, they started to find interested strangers and received messages from people wanting to participate as the project took off on social media.
"The connection between the couples is one of the main things we wanted to focus on because we wanted to capture their intimacy and togetherness," Bar and Avshalom explain. "Sometimes we directed them to a specific pose we had in mind and sometimes we gave them the freedom to just be with each other and choose poses themselves, with only some small tweaks from our side."
All of the images were shot in and around the couples’ homes but where exactly was up to them and the circumstances of the day. Some are seen lounging together on their beds, while others are in the quiet corners of living rooms or kitchens. "We always tried to find different spots around the houses but usually there was one that felt like it was telling a couple's story best. Most importantly we wanted to simplify the story and the styling, and we wanted it to be natural."
In some of the images, couples have chosen to embrace their nakedness and wrap themselves up in each other for the camera; in others, physical connections are more subtly represented through gestures like holding hands or leaning gently on one another. Either way, a glorious sense of comfort and closeness radiates from each of them. "We wanted to have the option to show skin because this project is about humanity and not about anything else, like fashion, for example, and the key to doing this right lay in our communication with the couples," the duo explains. "We always talked before the shoots, let them know what we’re looking for and then allowed them to decide what they were comfortable with. Of course, we were not always looking for nudity – the process was mostly just about getting to know them and how best to represent their relationships."
And how did being lovers themselves shape the process? "In our opinion, the fact that we are a couple was crucial to this project," the duo says, "especially as each of us wouldn’t have felt so comfortable doing it alone. It’s also been a big advantage in that it meant the couples felt much more comfortable too – it seems like they, as well as us, were able to connect, open up and create a safe place during each shoot." The only difficulties the duo faced, they say, were differing opinions when it came to choosing final images. "But that’s quite rare, and we always work it out in the end!" they add. What’s a healthy relationship without a little back and forth, after all?
Towards the end of 2022, Bar and Avshalom published a photobook of pictures from Us and at that point they decided to work on other projects, feeling that the selection of images was complete, at least for now. As for whether they'll make more couples' images in due course? Only "the future will tell".
Remembering one of their favourite memories from the making of the project, meanwhile, Bar and Avshalom recall a particular day where they were booked to shoot two couples – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. “The couple in the morning, Karin and Rami, had been married for more than 25 years. He’s a doctor and she’s a therapist, they have kids, they live in a big house, and they are super comfortable with each other. Then, in the afternoon, we shot another couple called Yarden and Max, who'd known each other for just a month and had moved in together in this tiny apartment. It was amazing to see the juxtaposition, the different stages of these two relationships and the magic in each one,” they say. And that’s what Us is really all about for them, in the end – whether a couple has been together for days or for decades, it’s a project all about celebrating their closeness, their beauty, and their love.